River musings

29 05 2014

I found a series on the colorful rivers in our world – but not the kind you’d want to raft or kayak on, because the colors are produced by toxins. The fish are dead. These ravaged rivers stand as red flags to the monumental mismanagement of our precious water resources. And though most people think these rivers exist only in China or Bangladesh, two American rivers are named in the list of most polluted rivers in the world: the mighty Mississippi River and the Cuyahoga River.

In addition to sewage, perhaps the worst pollutants in the Mississippi River are agricultural in nature. At the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico lies a so-called Dead Zone of 6,000 to 8,000 square miles. This has been created by the Mississippi’s high amount of nitrogen-based fertilizer run-off, which upsets the food chain, creating very low oxygen levels in coastal waters.

The Cuyahoga River is famous – or infamous – for having caught fire numerous times since 1868, most recently in June 1969. Flowing through the Cleveland, Ohio area, the Cuyahoga River, because it runs through a congested urban environment, has been subjected to numerous forms of pollution, particularly industrial waste, which has made it flammable at times. Interestingly, the plight of the Cuyahoga River helped promote in the late 1960s the ecological movement across the U.S., whose motto was “Ecology Now.” This joint fervor led to passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Not quite so polluted these days, since some species of aquatic life can actually survive in it, the Cuyahoga River nevertheless remains one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern, as it empties into Lake Erie,  once a very dirty body of water as well, though it supports fisheries of note.

Other rivers on the lists of “most polluted” include:

  • Australia (The King River)
  • Argentina (Riachuelo River)
  • Indonesia (Citarum River)
  • Italy (Sarno River)
  • India (Ganges River and Yamuna River)
  • China (Yellow River and Jianhe River)
  • Philippines (Marilao River)

 

Back to our colorful rivers.  These pictures are hard to integrate with my mental image of cold, clear mountain streams – though I did grow up in the south, where silt filled rivers are numerous.  But animals and fish living in or near the silt filled rivers have adapted.  There are no adaptations that make these rivers livable.  We have insisted that textile mills treat their wastewater, because textile mills are the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water in the world – agriculture holds pride of place as the #1 polluter overall, but I think “industrial” can now be applied to agriculture as well, can’t it?

White river:

This river is in China, and known as the “Milk River” because of the large amount of stone cutting dust dumped into the river.

White River

Rivers have other ways of turning white, though the culprit is still pollution. Nature-lovers were rather “irked” in April of 2009 when a 150-ft stretch of the River Irk in northwest England was subsumed in bright white foam up to 10 feet thick. A detergent factory upstream denied responsibility for the situation, stating the cause “remains a mystery.”

river Irk

Another infamous white foamy river winds its way through southeastern Brazil. The Tiete River  fills with foam which forms when water mixes with phosphate and phosphorus—ingredients found in products such as biodegradable detergents. This untreated household waste comes mostly from Sao Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil.

 

Photo: Paulo Whitaker, Reuters

Photo: Paulo Whitaker, Reuters

 

Pink River:

Check the label on your pink blouse – you can be fairly sure that where it’s made, a pink river runs through it.

Pink river

Red River:

This disturbing picture shows what looks like a river of blood. The Jian River, which runs through Luoyang City in China’s Henan Province and provides drinking water for its residents, turned red as the result of an illegal dye dump from a local chemical plant.

 

styleandthestartup.com

styleandthestartup.com

Orange River:

Then there’s the brilliant vermilion river, tainted by toxic tailings from a nearby nickel mine in Canada. The photograph, taken by Edward Burtynsky in 1996, depicts an eerie and forbidding landscape. Notice any trees, shrubs, a single blade of grass anywhere near its blackened shores? As Kenneth Baker wrote in his exploration of Burtynsky’s work, “enjoyment depends on our not thinking too hard about a bright orange river as a chemical and ecological reality: we know intuitively that in nature a river of this colour must spell trouble.” (Note, this image is the cover photograph on Burtynsky’s book, “Manufactured Landscapes”)

Orange river 2

Blue River:

Taken of the Shijing River in China, which has high levels of pharmaceuticals (Diclofenac) and volatile organic sulfur compounds (VOSCs), including methanethiol, carbonyl sulfide, dimethyl sulfide, carbon disulfide, and dimethyl disulfide as well as endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Blue river

Purple River:

Residents along Tullahan River have noted that multi-colored sudsy effluents have left violet-colored residue in the river water, rocks and banks. Several industries, such as paper, pen and dye factories, are located upstream from the site in this photo.

Greenpeace:  Tullahan River in Caloocan, Manila

Greenpeace: Tullahan River in Caloocan, Manila

 

Yellow river:

China’s Yellow River was named for the pale silt it carries, though in today’s industrialized China it may be tinted yellow or any other color due to pollution and “accidental” waste water releases. The images below show poisonous yellow bubbles floating on the river due to an oil spill.

Yellow river

Brown River:

The image below, shows kayakers making their way through the Rayonier discharge on the Altamaha River near Doctortown in Wayne County, Georgia, USA.  It was published on the front page of the Savannah Morning News, 23 June 2012. A dark, acrid-smelling discharge greeted them. “The stuff looked like oil, it looked gooey,” said kayaker Celeste Tibbets of Decatur, Georgia.

Brown River-

 

 

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Our oceans and your textile choices

23 02 2011

I just don’t know what it takes to change people’s habits.  We need a huge wake up call about the disastrous state of our oceans!  Our oceans are our life support system.  And they’re in trouble.

Because this is a blog about textile issues, I wanted to remind you that  the textile industry is the world’s #1 industrial polluter of fresh water.    So remember that  each time you choose a fabric that has been processed conventionally, in a mill which does not treat its wastewater, you’re  adding to the problem.  We’re all downstream.  And please also remember that a fabric marked “organic cotton” – though decidedly better than conventional cotton – is still a fabric which is 27% synthetic chemicals by weight,  processed at a mill which returned the untreated, chemically infused effluent to our oceans.

Sorce: NOLA.com

People once assumed that the ocean was so large that all pollutants would be diluted and dispersed to safe levels. But in reality, they have not disappeared – and some toxic man-made chemicals have even become more concentrated as they have entered the food chain.

Tiny animals at the bottom of the food chain, such as plankton in the oceans, absorb the chemicals as they feed. Because they do not break down easily, the chemicals accumulate in these organisms, becoming much more concentrated in their bodies than in the surrounding water or soil. These organisms are eaten by small animals, and the concentration rises again. These animals are in turn eaten by larger animals, which can travel large distances with their even further increased chemical load.

Animals higher up the food chain, such as seals, can have contamination levels millions of times higher than the water in which they live. And polar bears, which feed on seals, can have contamination levels up to 3 billion times higher than their environment.

Some scientists describe the chemical change in the ocean as throwing evolution into reverse: the chemical composition is going back toward the “primordial soup,” favoring the simplest organisms – indeed, algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing unchecked –  and threatening or eliminating the more complex.  There are so many jellyfish in the ocean that many fisheries have given up their normal catch and are just harvesting jellyfish.[1] Clickhere to view Jellyfish Gone Wild by the National Science Foundation.  In fact, according to a report published in the Los Angeles Times, these most primitive organisms are exploding:  it’s a ‘rise of slime’ as one scientist calls it.   It’s killing larger species and sickening people.

Los Angeles Times report  in 2006 (click here to read the entire article)  sounds like something from a horror movie:  A spongy weed, reported to grow at 100 square meters per minute – literally fast enough to cover a football field sized area in an hour – has been plaguing fishermen in Australia.  The culprit, it was found, is a strain of cyanobacteria known as Lyngbya majuscula, an ancestor of modern-day bacteria and algae that flourished 2.7 billion years ago.  It has since shown up in at least a dozen places around the globe. It thrives in oxygen depleted water.   Once established, Lyngbya creates its own nitrogen fertilizer from decaying parts of the plant.

Many fishermen in Moreton Bay avoid working in the four months every year that Lyngbya clogs their waters because it is highly toxic to them.  When fishermen touch it, their skin breaks out in searing welts.  Their lips blister and peel.   As the weed blanketed miles of Moreton Bay over the last decade, it stained fishing nets a dark purple and left them coated with a powdery residue. When fishermen tried to shake it off the webbing, their throats constricted and they gasped for air.

After one man bit a fishing line in two, his mouth and tongue swelled so badly that he couldn’t eat solid food for a week.

Scientists in labs studying the bacteria couldn’t even be in the same room with it, the smell was so pungent.  It’s like “The Blob” come to life.

Scientist Jeremy Jackson says that we have forgotten the basic rule of thumb:  “Be careful what you dump in the swimming pool, and make sure the filter is working.”

And to add insult to  our ocean’s injury, the number of dead zones – where there is so little oxygen only microbes can survive – has doubled every 10 years since the 1960s [2].  In 2008, there were 400 dead zones [3].   So does that make you worry?  It should.   This is an example of what mathematicians call “exponential growth”, and it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really impact us until we’re about to be kicked in the teeth.

To demonstrate the concept, there is an old story about a king who was presented with a gorgeous handmade chessboard by one of his subjects.  The king was delighted, and asked what the man wanted in return.  The courtier surprised the king by asking for one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second, four grains on the third etc. The king readily agreed and asked for the rice to be brought.   But there was not enough rice in the world to fill the courtier’s request (see note below) – the total amount of rice required would be 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.   This is about  460 billion tons, or 6 times the entire weight of the Earth’s biomass.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

And to see how the problem can become critical overnight (because according to the laws of exponential growth, the larger the quantity becomes, the faster it grows):  Imagine having a pond with water lily leaves floating on the surface. The lily population doubles in size every day and if left unchecked will smother the pond in 30 days, killing all the other living things in the water. We want to save the pond, so we check the lilies every day.   Yet day after day the plant seems small and so it is decided to leave it to grow until it half-covers the pond, before cutting it back. But the pond doesn’t becomes half covered until day 29 – leaving just one day to save the pond.  (4)

This concept has even led to the phrase “second half of the chessboard”, which refers to a point where an exponentially growing factor begins to have a significant impact.

So this news about the ocean dead zones – you might think that a dead zone the size of the state of Oregon is no big deal, but the area is growing exponentially.  How many years do we have until we reach the second half of the chessboard?

We must stop messing up our oceans.   If not for yourself, do it for your children. “You wouldn’t let a child open up a cabinet under the sink and start tasting the chemicals down there,” Fabien Cousteau says. “So why would you dump those chemicals down the drain and have them end up on your plate, which you then feed to your child?” (5)

NOTE regarding rice on the chessboard:

The total number of grains of rice on the first half of the chessboard is 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + 32 + 64 + 128 + 256 + 512 + 1024 … + 2,147,483,648, for a total of exactly 232 − 1 = 4,294,967,295 grains of rice, or about 100,000 kg of rice, with the mass of one grain of rice being roughly 25 mg.

The total number of grains of rice on the second half of the chessboard is 232 + 233 + 234 … + 263, for a total of 264 − 232 grains of rice. This is about 460 billion tonnes, or 6 times the entire weight of the Earth biomass.

On the 64th square of the chessboard there would be exactly 263 = 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 grains of rice. In total, on the entire chessboard there would be exactly 264 − 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.


[2] Diaz, Robert J., and Rosenberg, Rutger, “Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems”, Science, August 2008.

[3] http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/08/ocean-dead-zones-increasing-400-now-exist.php

(4)  Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. (1972) The Limits to Growth. New York: University Books. ISBN 0-87663-165-0

(5)  http://www.oprah.com/world/Ocean-Pollution-Fabien-Cousteaus-Warning-to-the-World/4